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Confidence in Our Brethren - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon

Articles on the Christian Walk, Systematic Theology and Practical Theology

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A look at what Hebrews 13 says about teachers and pastors who have lived before us. Should we think about them and their theology? Should we know what grace abounded to them in their lives? Yes!

There is a growing consensus in Evangelical Christianity towards the aversion to confessionalism, and any kind of creedal adherence. People just do not like to do the work necessary to gain an understanding of historical theology. There is too much work to be done in order to master that information. It is deep, difficult and far too in-depth for the average Christian to consider – right? Many so called Bible believing Christians desire to believe the Bible, but do not place much weight in the redemptive history of the church and its orthodoxy that the Bible has spawned since the coming of Christ. Instead, they say, “I have Sola Scriptura, me and my Bible, and that is enough for me. I do not need to rely on creeds, catechisms, or anything else.” They believe they are following the dictates of their conscience. They believe they are standing with the same convictions of Martin Luther when he said, “my conscience is captive to the Word of God…” Little do they know they are not standing with him but against him. They believe they are following the Bible. In many ways, for them, Sola Scriptura turns into Solo Scriptura. Sola Scriptura teaches that everything necessary for salvation can be found in the Bible, and the Bible is clear to reveal it. This is very true. Solo Scriptura makes the “me and my Bible” Christian the sole authority on his own destiny based on his own understanding of what he thinks the text means. That does not mean he knows what the text means, it simply says he thinks he does and rests on such an authority – that authority really being himself. However, they are overthrowing the Bible, and even overthrowing Sola Scriptura when they deny the commands to concern themselves with the history of a theological past. The Bible itself is the greatest “theological past” Christian’s possess, and it spurs them on to consider all of history’s theological past.

The Bible commands Christians to consider the teachers and pastors of the past personally, and their teachings, in order to be guarded by the possibility of being thrown by every wind of doctrine. Yes, it commands Christians to do so. The Bible actually commands Christians to concern themselves with the manner of grace in pastors and teachers of the past, in order to live in the “now” with a grace that is true and free from error. The Scriptures speak about this in a number of ways and in a variety of passages. One of the most astounding is Hebrews 13:7-9. The text reads, “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Do not be carried about with various and strange doctrines. For it is good that the heart be established by grace, not with foods which have not profited those who have been occupied with them.” This passage is often mistranslated in a multiplicity of ways. This writer does not want to concern the reader with the intricacies of Greek exegetical labor here. The polished Greek of Hebrews is hard to follow and unnecessary to simply set forward Hebrew’s ideas around this passage. However, some things need to be said in order to set this passage in a position of helpfulness to the topic at hand.

The writer of Hebrews is quite interested in the religious community of the past, and how it is to help us in Christian theology and the practical aspects of the future lives of the saint. There is a definite structure to this section, as is with Hebrews in general. It is high polished Greek and thoughtful reflection, specific choice of words, and upholds purposeful grammatical structures. The writer is deliberate. It seems chapter 13, as a whole, is something of a postscript and a series of addendums. There are sections marked with “remembering” that the reader should be engaged in (cf. 7-19 broken into 7-9 and 17-19 as dividers). In verse 7 we come to “remember” or to “be mindful of” those who have rule over you, and those who have spoken to you. At first glance this may seem as though it is speaking of the same person here in the present. Even the Greek student may miss the exegesis here at first glance unless he theologically thinks about the entire section. There are pastors in each church (or should be). The pastor or teacher the Christian is learning from at present may be said to be ruling over them and have spoken to them in the past about sermons. This seems like what the writer is saying at first glance, and even at first exegetical pass with the Greek eye. But this is not the intent of the writer for grammatical reasons and for structural reasons, especially the significance of verse 8. To properly appreciate this section, the listener, the one being preached to or ruled over, should consider the pastors and teachers of the church in the past, not the present. Literally the verse could read the “ones who have gone before you,” and this is the sense that John Owen handles the verse. This writer agrees that those exemplified for consideration are long dead and buried. They are not those who have “current” rule over the church, but those that “have spoken” the word of God to the hearers, and those that can have their lives considered by the hearer. In other words, the writer of Hebrews is stressing the already run race of grace in the life of the teacher or pastor who is dead (like the list in Hebrews 11), and the reader of the epistle should consider those whom God had given to the church in times past, for they rule over him. The only way one can consider the life of grace in a pastor or teacher in this manner is to consider their “life” in totality. In seeing the race they ran by grace, through faith, in the Word of God, so the reader of the epistle is to do the same. They are to run the race in the same faith-based manner that their formers teachers or pastors have done. This is accomplished by meditating on the lives of those who have gone before them (which, notably, is a wonderful argument for the reading of biographies) and what they believed. We will see why this is so in a moment.

In considering the “outcome of the life” (literally), this can only be done if their lives have ended, and they are part of the past, as the writer intimates. If the reader desires to concern himself with the current teachers of the church, then the next section (verses 17-19) where they are instructed to “obey” presently, those who have the rule over them, should be considered.

Owen also makes the point that the word hegeomai is usually employed as a noun in the New Testament, and that it should be employed here as well. It seems Erasmus made the mistake of making it conjoin verse 17 in his version of the Greek New Testament and many translators have “mistakenly followed” as Owen says (Hebrews, Volume 7). Even recent scholarship believes the “members of the house church are admonished to continue to remember their former leaders, who are characterized as preachers of the word of God (Nolland, John, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 47b: Hebrews 9-13, (Dallas, Texas: Word Books, Publisher) 1998.)” They are considering those who have gone before them as a community of believers bound to the Word of God, and those God has blessed the church with as gifts to teach them the Word of God. They are no longer with them, but that should not cause the believer to forget them, rather, they should be employed in mediating on the work that God had done in their lives. This point is clearly seen as the foundation of the church is built on prophets, apostles and pastors/teachers (Ephesians 4:11). As a matter of fact, the writer of Hebrews probably has in mind the same conception as seen in the Corinthian correspondence where Paul says “for all things are yours” which directly pertains to the teachers of the church in their various duties, gifts and abilities (1 Cor. 3:21). Christians are not to glory in men, but all men, all pastors, given as gifts to the church, belong to them. All good things, all things taught by these able men, belong to the Christian.

The Christian is to follow the faith of those gone before them. This is more than simply saying they should remember their doctrine. The writer is not just telling them to memorize the systematic theology of a bygone teacher. It includes knowing that material, but it is much more than this. The saint is to consider the faith, the life, and the conversation of the teacher or pastor. That means theology in action is what is being encouraged. How did that systematic theology affect that pastor’s life? William Perkin’s said, “Theology is the science of living blessedly forever.” William Ames said, “Theology is doctrine or teaching of living to God.” This is the point of the writer. But it is not enough to sit down with the Bible and simply peruse its pages for personal edification. The Word of God in action is as important as the Word of God on the page. Without the Word of God on the page you have heresy and relativism. Without the Word of God in action you have dead-orthodoxy. The writer of Hebrews does not want the saint to fall into either extreme. What is his solution, then for a life of action? He commands the saint to remember the life of their former pastors and teachers. They are to survey what they believed, how they lived out what they believed, and how God blessed them in their work of living out the Word of God. This points then, not only to the knowledge of orthodoxy as past teachers and pastors have penned, preached and lived out this Word, but the current living out of same doctrine. (The former leaders are now deceased. As those who “spoke [ejlavlhsan] the word of God,” their preaching belongs to the community’s past (for the argument that the aorist tense of the verb has reference to the initial proclamation to the audience, see Tasker, ExpTim 47 [1935-36] 138). It is probable that the community was gathered in response to the word they proclaimed. It was on the ground of their preaching that the missionaries were elevated to leadership roles (see B. Weiss, 89; Laub, SNTU 6-7 [1981-82] 171-77). They were thus the original leaders or founding fathers of the community (so Filson, ‘Yesterday’, 31, 74; P. E. Hughes, 569-70; among others) (Nolland, John, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 47b: Hebrews 9-13, (Dallas, Texas: Word Books, Publisher) 1998.)

At this point, many will bock at referring to past teachers and pastors and bringing up to date the “same doctrine” as those pastors and teachers had believed, and lived out. They will herald “semper reformanda” always reforming in our doctrine. They will say (much like the Auburn Four) there is a “new paradigm” to be had and discovered. They will say there is a “New Covenant Theology” or a radical new “Dispensationalism” to be believed, as other theologians have propagated in the last 120 years. The writer of Hebrews disagrees. He disagrees based on this whole section and the next verse. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Mistakenly, many people quote this to refer to the ontological nature of the person of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, as the God-man. This is a mammoth exegetical error. The statement is not based on the ontological but the practical. The statement is not a one about the nature and being of God (though possible extensions may occur in thinking about the manner of His work). The statement refers directly to this section of the passage as “practical outworking of grace.” The manner in which Jesus works grace in and through the teachers and pastors of the church in bygone eras, is the same He will work today and the same He will always work. (Yes, the same manner of working in the Old Testament and the New Testament, and even into the last days of the church!) Jesus Christ and His work in the life of the believer is the same yesterday, today and forever. The doctrine given to teachers of yesteryear, the aid of the Spirit of God in working that doctrine into the life of the teacher, and the practical life of grace through the teacher is the same that the saint is to consider, ponder, weigh and live out. As God worked through the teachers and pastors of the past, so now, in mimicking, or imitating these men, the Lord will work the same grace in the saint. Make no mistake about the writer’s intention. His doctrine of the past, the working of the grace of the Holy Spirit, and the life lived by past teachers based on such grace is to be the saint’s example. (The word translated “outcome” (ekbasis, again in the NT only in 1 Cor. 10:13) is understood by many as a euphemism for death, often as a martyr’s death (so Hering, Westcott, Moffatt; Exp. Bible Commentary, Hebrews.).

There is a reason though, that saints are to consider the outcome of the lives of those gone before them that “spoke the Word of God”, is because of verse 9. “Do not be carried about with various and strange doctrines. For it is good that the heart be established by grace…” Semper Reformanda, in many respects, has given way to the warning of verse 9 because it is often misunderstood. People believe that they have the right to reinterpret the Bible based on their current generation, where, as the writer of Hebrews commands us, or rather, the Lord commands us, that we should consider the lives of the men of past and imitative them. No doubt this imitation should range from the gracious character of Hebrew 11 and the men of faith, even to those who spoke the Word of God to the church and who are now with Christ in heaven. Christians should be able to have confidence in their brethren, and the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit bearing witness to their hearts that the Bible is true, is further confirmed by the testimony that He works the exact same way, in the exact same manner of grace, in the exact same doctrines surrounding the teachers and pastors of the past. Instead of reinventing new doctrines, or discarding orthodox doctrines held by the Church of Jesus Christ of yesteryear, it is interesting that the writer exhorts the believer to look to the life of the pastor or teacher in order that he, the current saint, would not be blown around by every wind of doctrine. He would not be carried away, or literally “to be driven here or there and carried about” by anything someone teaches that seems “new” and intriguing. Rather, the saint, by looking to the Bible, and to the past teachers and pastors of the Bible, and how they lived out the Bible by faith and grace, they should imitate them. God blessed them, and will bless the contemporary saint, though the same doctrinal means. This further confirms the testimony of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the saint as they follow and defend the same doctrines that the teachers of the past taught and defended. The saints of the past, the teachers and pastors who have spoken the Word of God to the people of God, become “guardrails” to the orthodoxy of the Bible. They defended the “faith once delivered,” and their lives reflected it. In order that people are not carried about into strange teaching taught by contemporary “theologians”, they should look to the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, seen in the Bible, exegeted from the Bible, but practically lived out in the lives of the heralds of God of the Bible and church history.

What does this say about the need to study the past? It says that historical theology is exceedingly important. It says that the knowledge of historical theology is paramount to Christian living. It says that confessionalism, and to a great degree, subscriptionism, is something we cannot do without. The creeds, catechisms, councils, synods, and assemblies of the past cannot and should not be ignored. The books, treatises, sermons, pamphlets, voluminous sets, and biographies of the past are essential to living a life of grace. The orthodox teachings of the community of the church are to be held onto. These teachings belong, rightfully, to the saints. They are to be pondered, weighed, and lived out.

The objection to all this is threefold: 1) Does this mean we need something more than the Bible to help us to live? Even the Bible answers that with an affirmation. The hypothetical Christian with his bible on a desert island does not exist in the mind of the writers of the New Testament and the mind of God. God is not after the radical individualism that many would prefer today. (Even Robinson Crusoe had his Friday and he was a fictional character!) God is interested in a community of believers where iron sharpens iron guided by the precepts and teachings of the Bible. But Christian community is more than just a ring of believers holding hands looking at a bible sitting on a pedestal in their midst. It is actively participating in what the Bible teaches by living lives of grace, aided by the practical outworking of the Spirit’s truth in the lives of the members of the church, and by imitating the teachers who have gone before them. What does it mean to live a life of faith? Look to Abraham, Samson, Moses, and your former theologians. Look to John Calvin, Martin Luther, Augustine, William Ames, and your former teachers. Look to Edwards, Spurgeon, and yes, your former pastors. What did the theology of the Bible do for them? What should Christians expect it to do for them if they follow in the same footsteps? This is the exhortation, the “remembrance” that the writer of Hebrews desires them to remember. Here is where they see, physically in their midst, the Lord Jesus Christ working the same yesterday, today and forever.

The second objection goes something like this: “How can you expect the average Christian to gain such a grasp of historical theology and biography? There is simply too much information to hold onto and to learn.” This is a very weak argument, and usually a plea for laziness, but it still has some merit. Not everyone is going to be a church history teacher in seminary. Not everyone has the resources to read such a plethora of information. Not everyone has the funds to buy that many books about church history and theology. However, that does not mean the Christian is allowed to disregard the plain teaching of Hebrews 13:7-9 and 1 Cor. 3:21. All of these pastors belong to the Christian. Christians are commanded to consider them. At the very least, the Christian should have bygone teachers and pastors that can be trusted, or that other friends and relatives may know about that are worthy to study. To use an extreme example, this writer has ministered in Peru where the pastors are very poor. They lack good books and do not have the money to buy them. The books they are asking for are about church history. They want to know about the Reformation, about Calvin and Luther, and about the Puritan divines who came later. They are on the right track. As poor as they are, they are yearning for the history of the people of God. They want to remember them, learn from them, hold to their doctrine, and see Jesus Christ working his grace through the history of the church in the same way He has always done. So we cannot use the argument that there is too much information to do any study at all. Would it be that all Christians were intellectual redwoods!

The third objection is more of indifference than a voiced opinion. Christians today do not have time to study, so they do not. Those who do study are looked down upon as “intellectual terrorists” to those who have not taken the time to discover their theological past, as they ought. What results is complacency about the past, and about the historicity of the Christian faith. Walk into any church today, choose the 10 best Christians, and ask them to trace the history of orthodox creeds of the faith. Ask them what they have read. Ask them what they mean. Ask them if they believe them. Evangelicalism would look on with a blank stare, and it often does.

The overwhelming amount of information that could be gleaned from a proper action of the exhortation of the text at hand is quite voluminous. It is work. There are scores of volumes that one could purchase and buy as a result of clinging to the past in the exhortation of Hebrews 13. This writer has access to over 10,000 personal volumes. Where does one begin? It may be wise to do a study of the history of the creeds. They are the consensus statements of pastors and teachers of bygone ages who lived by faith through the grace of Jesus Christ. One could spend some time checking the Apostles’ Creed (A.D. 215), Nicene Creed (A.D. 325), The Chalcedonian Creed (A.D. 451), The Athanasian Creed (A.D. 500), Council of Orange (A.D. 529), Augsburg Confession (A.D. 1530), Calvin’s Catechism (A.D. 1560), The Concensus Tigurinus by John Calvin (A.D. 1549), The Belgic Confession (A.D. 1561), The Thirty-Nine Articles (A.D. 1571), Heidelberg Catechism (A.D. 1563), Seven Articles of the church of Leyden (A.D. 1617), Synod of Dordt (A.D. 1618-1619), Westminster Confession (A.D. 1646), The Midland Confession (A.D. 1655), The Savoy Declaration (A.D. 1658), and the like. These are all helpful in the endeavor to understanding the truth of the Bible, the history of men’s believer’s and the grace that the Holy Spirit worked through these men. The Christian should look for that same grace today as he walks in their footsteps to arrest his own culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

After a study of the creeds, it may be helpful to pick one or two pastors or theologians that the church has looked to, and read through their theological works (if there are any) and then their biographies. If a pastor or teacher does not have a theological legacy of some sort, then it is probably not a good choice for this kind of study and the fulfillment of the exhortation by Hebrews 13. It does not help us today to have a blind imitation to what a past teacher had done unless we understand his theology and know why he did what he did (which is part of the point of Hebrews 13!). If one were to master, say, the theology and life of Calvin, he could almost do no better. Augustine, Calvin, Luther, any of the Puritans, Bunyan, Edwards, Davies, Hodge, Spurgeon, Warfield, Mueller, Newton, Machen, Lloyd Jones, and the like, are wonderful examples of those who have excellent works as well as sublime biographies to read. Some of this writer’s favorites are “Jonathan Edwards a New Biography” by Ian Murray, “D. Martyn Lloyd Jones,” by Iain Murray (2 volumes), J. H. Merle d’Aubigne’s “The History of the Reformation”, “The History of the Christian Church, volumes 7-8” by Phillip Schaff on the German and Swiss Reformation, “But Now I See” by Josiah Bull on John Newton, “A Spectacle Unto God” by Don Kistler on Christopher Love, “The Life and Military Campaigns of Stonewall Jackson” by R.L. Dabney, “Augustine’s Confessions,” and of course, the Old Testament! These are treasure houses of what the writer of Hebrews is exhorting to the Christian to consider (which includes their theology).

The richness of the Christian faith extends into the brethren of the church. Christians can have confidence in their brethren because the Holy spirit has worked grace in them and their lives reflect it. They are commanded to consider them lest they themselves become blown away by the strange winds of doctrinal error. This does not, in any way, mean they give up their study of the Bible to study other who have studied the Bible. No. It means they study the Bible and they study to understand these men of the past. Consequently, they study these men of the past to understand their Bibles as well. Iron continually sharpens iron in the community of believers. Yes, friends, we can have confidence in our brethren, and are instructed by Hebrews, instructed by God himself, to consider His work in their lives.

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